The News-Press

March 24, 2017

 

Florida stuck in the past when it comes to water quality

By Pete Squibb

 

http://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/2017/03/24/florida-stuck-past-when-comes-water-quality/99573494/

 

I have been coming to Southwest Florida for nearly 25 years, and my wife's family came to Sanibel in the 1940ís. We were drawn to the area for the fishing and other water-related outdoor opportunities it has to offer. In 2013, we purchased a home in Fort Myers, and planned to spend a significant amount of our time here.

I'm an avid saltwater angler, and I wade fish the beaches and grass flats of Pine Island Sound, San Carlos Bay and Sanibel.  I average 300 fishing trips on the water each year.

Before retiring, I had a 40-year career with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife biologist. During that career, I had a unique opportunity to observe natural resource management in many states and several foreign countries. I've seen a lot of resource management in a lot of places.

The existing water management is causing a collapse in marine ecosystems in the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee. The collapse of the fragile marine ecosystems became very noticeable last February, shortly after discharges began. It became so bad that I packed up and went back to waist deep snow and subzero temperatures in Michigan hoping the discharges would stop. Unfortunately, as we all know the high volume discharges continued into early fall. When I returned, I discovered most of the seagrass beds I frequently fished had been destroyed by the discharges.

As I learn more about the history of the Everglades and settlement of South Florida, one thing becomes very apparent. Every state in the union, like Florida, went through a stage of uncontrolled development and environmental destruction around the start of the 20th century.

During this era, people didnít understand the long term consequences of their actions. Timber was destroyed, dams were built, market hunting devastated wildlife stocks, uncontrolled use of water resources occurred, oil and gas extraction had limited regulation and agriculture was expanded into areas that were best not tilled.

Over my lifetime there has been a move and a major commitment to restore those damages. Tremendous measures have been carried out to restore natural systems across the country. Unfortunately, I see management of natural resources in Florida stuck in a 1950's time warp. Changes that should have taken place then to protect the environment did not happen and are not happening today. The focus of Everglades restoration over the last two decades has been on politically expedient, but ecologically insignificant projects that provide little benefit to the estuaries.

Two main problems exist in the Greater Everglades: Florida Bay only receives one-fifth the freshwater it historically did, and excess freshwater in Lake Okeechobee is unnaturally discharged to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers via man made canals and water control structures. Until Floridaís resource managers overcome the political hurdles and begin to focus on meaningful restoration, the estuaries in South Florida will continue to push closer to their demise.

As someone late to the party, I see a political "we donít care" attitude hanging over Floridaís resource management. It is hard to imagine that the most valuable resource in the state, water, is denied protections to maintain quality for the future. Water is the base for Floridaís economy.

By supporting and passing SB10, the Florida legislature has the opportunity to change nearly 100 years of poor water management direction. By doing so now, we may be saving these valuable ecosystems that so many Floridians and visitors come to see and utilize. This may not be in my lifetime, but I truly hope my grandkids will be able to see the benefits of a restored Everglades in theirs.

Pete Squibb is a resident of Fort Myers and former wildlife biologist in Michigan.